Orcinus Orca. Doesn’t that name just scream terror, horror, and everything else that makes your blood run cold? What, no? Really? Why not? It’s a KILLER whale! Maybe it’s because we’re just used to images of tamed versions of these whales doing tricks at Sea World, which we would never expect out of a carcharodon carcharias. Maybe, because they’re air-breathing mammals like us, we can’t conceive of them performing acts of cruelty, like a carcharodon carcharias. Maybe it’s because some of us mistakenly think they’re just too cute to be evil, unlike the carcharodon carcharias. Or maybe you saw this film that took the leather-jacket-wearing cool out of killer whales forever.
We have the insanity of Italian super-producer Dino de Laurentiis to thank for this celluloid headache. Apparently, after watching Jaws - which he must have thought was a minor indie film that no one would recognize or interpret as having been copied - he ordered his producer “by the bones of Amen-Kara, and the many moons of Jupiter to find a fish tougher and more terrible than the great white!” Orca was born.
Orca is the doomed story of Richard Harris, a fisherman in Newfoundland who captures sea creatures for aquariums. His name is Nolan, but we’ll call him Quody as he seems to be a combination of Jaws’s Captain Quint and Chief Brody. He rescues a pretty (duh!) marine biologist named Dr. Bedford (let’s call her ‘Hoopette!’), from a great white shark. Said shark is then eaten by a killer whale. Duh, duh, duuuhhh...
Quody’s crew captures another killer whale. Complications arise when the creature miscarriages on deck and the whale’s mate - the one that earlier killed the shark - screams in agony. He attacks the boat, killing one seaman and injuring crewmember Bo Derek. The FIEND! Cutting his losses, and ignoring the black market bounty he could collect from Planned Parenthood, Quody dumps the corpses overboard and heads back to port. To his astonishment, he finds the female on the beach the next day, with the living whale still screaming at him from a distance. Hoopette arrives to tell him it’s a challenge and it will be a fight to the death between them. Uh-huh...
After killing the redshirts, the whale sinks the boat near some icebergs and traps Quody on an ice island by breaking a berg and pushing it all by itself. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. You know, this scene has raised questions and been commented on by several notables. Those comments, among others, include:
Science: “I quit.”
The Civil Ice Patrol: “Why are we wasting our lives out here?”
The Wreck of the Titanic: “YOU GOTTA BE KIDDIN’ ME!”
What Went Wrong?
What went wrong? How about the starring beast? As noted, the killer whale was selected because it can potentially be seen as more dangerous than the great white. And, indeed, such whales have been known to kill great whites in real life. The problem, however, lies in the portrayal.
The whale is shown as having human-level intelligence and emotions. And while humanization might seem like a good idea, it reaches levels of sheer absurdity. How does the whale know where Quody lives? How would it know when he’s on the beach in order to scream at him? How would it know the importance of fuel lines and that cutting them would hurt the village and cause the villagers to turn against Quody? I’ll stop here before I fill the page.
Contrast that with Jaws, where the shark was presented as a force of nature. It kills and eats people because that’s what it does. It doesn’t pick targets. The problems on land - the fear and devastation of the summer tourist season- are natural, believable, and very real reactions. No personal vendettas are needed. Add in the fact that we don’t see the shark very much (a move forced by problems with the mechanical shark), which makes it feel like a presence that could appear at any time or place. ‘Less is more’ is definitely preferable for this scenario.
Bland, Boring Humans
In many ways Orca desperately wants to be an art house version of Jaws. The characters philosophize endlessly about the Quody-whale feud and go back-and-forth with changing opinions every five minutes. It’s like the possible result of Joss Whedon and Vince Russo being fused into one, terrible playwright.
We get a lot of arty shots of the whale, the village, and underwater ice. There are even several shots of Quody and the whale reflected in each other’s eyes. Okay, etheral camerawork. We get it. Or maybe they were trying to distract us from the characters, all of whom seem to be suffering from bipolar disorder. Think about this:
Quody starts as a tough fisherman. After the female whale washes up on the beach, he goes cowardly and refuses to fight the surviving whale. Then, he claims he’s worried about other peoples’ safety, but after his house is destroyed and he gets berated by everyone he knows, he goes full Ahab and heads out after the animal, no matter how many die.
Hoopette... um, whose side is she on? At first, she’s a classic misanthrope who admires whales more than people. She berates Quody and calls him a barbarian for killing the female whale, but then she calls him a coward for not meeting the whale’s challenge. Then she interferes with his first attempt to kill the whale with dynamite. But then, on the iceberg, she demands that he shoot the thing. On behalf of all men, I would like to say: “Make up your mind, lady!” She must only exist to point the plot in the direction the filmmakers are guessing it should go.
And then there’s the crew who are loyal to Quody until the boat goes too far north and gets covered in ice like the Time Bandit during opie season. Each one decides it’s time to turn back, attempts to change the boat’s course, and gets eaten by the whale in due course. (I guess the whale won’t let common sense intervene any more than Hoopette.) The Wise Old Indian who goes with them suffers the same fate.
No such thing in Orca.
This movie was a bust, for obvious reasons. However, it seems to have been a favorite of Richard Harris, who defended the film all the way to his Marcus Aurelius days. However, the bosses at Universal Studios didn’t share Harris’ affections. Two years later, in 1979, one of the opening scenes of Jaws 2 featured a badly mutilated killer whale carcass washed up on the beach and a scientist telling Chief Brody that there are nastier predators in the ocean. Whether this is a case of “Take that!” or a total F-U, I will let you be the judge.
So, what do you guys think?